Law meets religion as SC Supreme Court takes on Episcopal split

Breakaway Bishop Mark Lawrence
Breakaway Bishop Mark Lawrence jmonk@thestate.com

The five justices on South Carolina’s Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday that combined religion with the law as they grappled with how to handle a schism that has riven the state’s Episcopal Church.

At issue is not only the legal name that will go to the winning party, but also an estimated $500 million worth of church property at 38 parishes around the Lowcountry that broke away from the national church, whose parishes mostly stretch from Columbia to the Upstate.

Justices reached no decision Wednesday after hearing an hour’s worth of arguments in a courtroom packed with some 100 onlookers. Although many wore the white collars indicating pastoral status in the Episcopal church, they belonged to two different factions.

Any decision likely will be appealed by the losing side directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, which can take cases dealing with First Amendment religious rights, as this case does. Although questions of the relationship of a national church with outlying churches are part of religious life, disputes such as the one that has morphed in a full-fledged public legal battle are relatively rare.

By their questions, the justices had clearly studied the case before them. Several also said that Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein, who wrote the February decision whose appeal was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing, might have failed to address relevant issues. In July 2014, Goodstein presided over a 14-day non-jury trial in which she heard 59 witnesses and considered 1,200 pieces of evidence.

But even if Goodstein made major errors in her decision, Chief Justice Jean Toal noted, those errors might not bear on the legal principles, such as property rights, that justices are likely to use to decide this case.

In her 46-page decision, Goodstein ruled that Bishop Mark Lawrence of Charleston is the rightfully elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and had the freedom to leave the National Episcopal Church. Lawrence’s breakaway group has title to the 38 parishes in dispute and the legal right to use the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina’s name, seal and other identifying marks, Goodstein ruled.

Lawrence, a theological conservative, has long opposed the U.S. Episcopal Church’s growing liberalism on social and cultural issues. In 2012, he walked out of the national convention after delegates approved a blessings rite for same-sex couples. Those doctrinal issues, although key factors leading to the South Carolina split, were not a major part of Wednesday’s legal arguments.

During Wednesday’s arguments, the question of Lawrence’s loyalty to the national Episcopal church he once swore allegiance to was aired.

“Bishop Lawrence had absolutely no authority to give away the national church’s beneficial interest in parish property,” said Blake Hewitt, lawyer for the national Episcopal church and the remaining churches, called the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

Moreover, according to the national church’s pleadings, Lawrence took an oath to support the national church and wrote a letter saying he intended to stay with the national church and vowed to conform to its doctrine, discipline and worship – but then led a breakaway movement.

“Less than a year after he takes his vows (to support the national church), he has fingers crossed behind his back,” Hewitt told the justices.

Associate Justice Kaye Hearn said most court decisions in other states involving church schisms did not agree with a 2009 South Carolina breakaway church decision involving All Saints Church of Pawleys Island. In that case, which justices said had unique circumstances, the S.C. Supreme Court upheld All Saints’ right to leave the main Episcopal church and take its property with it.

Justices also noted that three of the justices on the five-justice bench on Wednesday did not take part in the All Saints case. Toal and Associate Justice Don Beatty sat on that case; justices Costa Pleicones, John Kittredge and Hearn did not, Kittredge and Hearn because they weren’t yet elected to the court.

Hearn summed up the case this way: “Your clients have a perfect right to leave,’ she told breakaway church lawyer Alan Runyan of Beaufort. “The question is, can they take property with them?”

Runyan told the justices that his clients did have a right to leave, and that the national church has no claim on their property.

After the hearing, Lawrence, 65, who was in the audience, said, “We still believe that this is an issue of religious freedom, and that we are the historic diocese, and we are seeking to defend ourselves and our property from those who would usurp it.”

Speaking for the other side, Bishop Andrew Waldo, who is based at Columbia’s Trinity Cathedral and heads the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, “I felt that our Blake Hewitt, the lawyer for the Episcopal Church, really made profound and compelling arguments. I just believe the justices have much to consider, and we will await their decision with great anticipation.”

Almost 50 lawyers are involved in the case – about 40 for the breakaway churches, and eight for the national church and its South Carolina parishes.

Questions in the Episcopal case

▪ Do South Carolina Episcopal churches that split from the national Episcopal Church take their property with them?

▪ Did breakaway Bishop Mark Lawrence deliberately break his vows after promising to obey the national church?

▪ Will this case ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court?